This story was originally published in the January 2015 edition of The Australian Women's Weekly. Since then, we have discovered that family members weren't initially allowed to be named because William was, in fact, in foster care. Not only that, but police have just conducted a four-week targeted search of bushland near the NSW mid-north coast town of Kendall in hopes of finding William's remains. They were unsuccessful. Just a couple of months after William's disappearance, The Weekly had a journalist on the ground in Kendall, who uncovered why this missing person's case has unfolded like no other.
It was a knock at the door, but instinctively Lydene Heslop knew something was wrong. "It was so much more than just a knock," recalls Lydene, a 36-year-old mother of two and volunteer bookkeeper for the local tennis club, on whose accounts she was working at the time. "It was hard, insistent, a plea for help. Then I heard the voice of the woman who was knocking and I knew something awful had happened. It was a voice tinged with desperation."
That voice belonged to the mother of a missing boy, William Tyrrell, a three-year-old last seen wearing a blue and red Spiderman outfit, whose disappearance in 2014 has baffled NSW police and cast a dark and enduring pall over Kendall, a small and otherwise peaceful rural community on the NSW mid-North Coast.
"The mother and the grandmother were standing at the door. The mother said a little boy was missing, that he was playing in the backyard up the road and hadn't been seen for about 25 minutes or so," says Lydene.
"She asked if I'd seen him, but of course, I was inside. I called out to my children, who were playing out the back, and asked if they'd seen him, but they hadn't and then all three of us started searching through the front yard, the side of the house and the backyard and the bush that borders the properties around here.
"The mother had this haunted look on her face. I remember thinking that was how I would look if one of my children went missing. At one point, we all stopped to listen because he was only a little boy and if he was in the bush, then it wouldn't have been long before he stopped and started crying. We didn't hear a thing except the wind in the trees."
Nobody has heard or seen anything of William since that morning. One moment, he was playing with his sister on the deck of his grandmother's house, the next, they were running through the backyard – a broad expanse of well-tended lawn not fenced from the road – playing chasings. Then William was gone, almost as if he had never been there.
Today, almost four months later, police are no closer to finding him than they were on the day he went missing, despite intensive searches, thousands of police hours and a nationwide plea for information.
Soon after his disappearance, William's face appeared in newspapers across the country, in a photograph taken by his grandmother on the morning he disappeared – in fact, just moments before he went missing – dressed in his favourite Spiderman outfit. That image has become synonymous with an investigation that has confounded both a police task force and the public.
How could a little boy simply vanish from his grandmother's backyard in broad daylight with no one seeing anything? That's the question that the people of Kendall are still asking themselves.
"We're only a small community, but everyone knows everyone else," says Rheannon Chapman, 38, who also grew up in the town and runs a business there.
"We all know everything there is to know about each other, but this has thrown everyone. Everybody is asking the same questions – how, why – but there are no answers. If there was ever a definition of a mystery, then this is it."
Police say they have done everything possible to try to locate William. On the day he disappeared, police were on the scene within minutes of being called by his family. A search of surrounding bush – thick and almost impenetrable in many places – revealed nothing and neither did subsequent searches by a large team of rescue workers, police and locals.
"The bush around the area where William disappeared is incredibly tough," says one police insider involved in the search who declined to be named. "Even the rescue guys and riot squaddies who came up from Sydney had their overalls torn to pieces. William was in a flimsy little cotton playsuit. He couldn't have walked five metres through that bush without leaving some sign."
Police searched each of the 21 houses in the estate that surrounds Benaroon Drive, the street just outside Kendall where William's grandmother lives. They searched the houses not once, but three and four times, each time using different personnel to make sure a fresh set of eyes looked at every possible clue. Roof spaces, sub-floor spaces, wall cavities, cupboards, sheds, all were searched and searched again with methodical determination just in case someone was keeping the little boy hidden.
Even the grandmother's house was searched, top to bottom, but there was nothing. Not a scrap of clothing, not a footprint in the dirt, not an errant tyre track. Police dogs were brought in and they managed to find William's scent, but only within the boundaries of the backyard.
"I can truthfully say that nothing has been discounted," says the man heading the investigation, Superintendent Paul Fehon, a long-serving officer and family man, who habitually refers to William as "young William".
"Our starting point is approximately a five-minute window when young William walked around the side of the house into the backyard and disappeared from sight while his mother and grandmother went inside for a cup of tea. We are still at that point. This far into an investigation we might expect something to lead us in a new direction. That hasn't happened. The truth is that we have nothing and that means we have to keep an open mind about what might have happened and that includes the possibility of human intervention and that he is still out there. That might be something good."
What the police are unwilling to say publicly is that their investigation has also included those closest to William. Privately, it is known that all family members have been checked and eliminated from the investigation.
And this is yet another baffling aspect of this case. Legal reasons prevent his family being identified. The most that can be said is that William's family history is complicated. What that means is no press conferences by desperate family members, no call-outs via the media to ask the community to bring home their little boy – the law simply doesn't allow it.
"There is a reason for that, but we are bound by the legislation," says Superintendent Fehon, who is unwilling and unable to go further. "We have to respect that."
Whatever the reality, such restrictions make reporting a story such as this difficult. It also makes it difficult for the people of Kendall to understand what is happening in their town and gives rise to fear, rumour and innuendo.
Kendall is a community of fewer than 1500 people. In the aftermath of William's disappearance, almost everyone in town has a theory about what may have happened and none involves him walking off into the bush. "There are almost as many theories as there are people in town," says one resident, who also declined to be named. "And that has brought a seismic shift in the way people are around here.
"We have always been an open, friendly community, but suddenly, everyone is tighter-lipped, more insular. Many people have lived here all their lives, others came here to escape things like this and yet here it is on our doorsteps, something that is only supposed to happen somewhere else."
Even those outside the community have noticed the change. Ben Cooper is a crime reporter with the nearby Port Macquarie News. He has visited Kendall many times over the years and says William's disappearance has cast a frightening pall over the small town. "There is a disturbing undercurrent in Kendall now that wasn't there before," says Ben. "The police are very close to their chest with information, even though they are trying to be transparent, so speculation is rife. There is a mood of heaviness and sense of suspicion there that I haven't seen before. It's as if a darkness on the edge of their lives has suddenly come into focus and they can't make it go away."
Indeed, local children no longer walk to the local tennis club, a social hub in the town. "Everyone picks up their kids when they can and drops them off," says one resident. "The local bus has changed its route to mean less walking for some of the kids, so they are not on their own. The truth is that we think he was taken, but we don't know who it was. And we don't know if it will happen again. The town has changed and I don't know that it will ever go back to being the innocent place that it was."
It has also opened old wounds for residents. "I talk a lot to people and they are all talking about how it reminded them of things in their own past – deaths of loved ones, people that went missing," the resident says. "It's like an emotional whirlwind has swept through the town."
Another woman adds, "They're not going to find him. He's been taken. I know the family won't want to hear that, but that is what I believe. Someone saw him and took an opportunity, and he's gone. Whether it was someone around here or, more probably, someone from out of town, I don't know."
Many more believe that he is alive, among them Lydene Heslop. "I think somebody out there has him and is caring for him," she says. "It might be that he is disguised, maybe dressed up as a girl and living another life. I think they will find him, but it might take years."
Which is little comfort for a family living in grief or a community still searching for answers.
"William didn't live here; he wasn't local," says Rheannon Chapman, who is now part of a committee of local women dedicated to keeping William's case in the public eye. "But the moment he went missing, he became one of us. We don't want people to forget about him. We are all mothers, too, and our hearts go out to that poor family."
That is a sentiment echoed by Superintendent Fehon, too. "You could see the grief and despair in the faces of the people who searched for William," he says. "Every day, when we found nothing, their shoulders slumped just a little more, their heads hung just a little lower."
"There was a lot of grief when we stopped the search, but it was nothing compared to the grief that the family felt when they packed up their car and headed home. Imagine what it was like driving away with an empty seat and then turning into their street and opening their front door, knowing they would find an empty room."
"You can only imagine the grief and trauma they have been going through, and how many sleepless nights they have had and are still having."
"It's the unknown aspect of this that has reached out to us all, young William being such a vulnerable child. His room is still made up and there are times when [the family's] despair is overwhelming for them. But they still hold out hope. And we hope that we can provide a positive outcome to match that hope."
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Australian Women's WeeklyFeb 14, 2019